Germany’s new government: almost but not quite
13 Feb 2018|

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to form a new government following the September 2017 federal election have clearly taken a toll on her. Voters share her frustration.

Almost five months on, Germany still has no government, although it might get there sometime in March if all goes well. We all need this: in these very difficult times, with so many elements of the established global order in flux and under threat, a strong and stable Germany is one of the most important prerequisites for European, and therefore global, security and prosperity.

But there’s still one very big hurdle to jump. Despite the agreement to form another grand coalition (GroKo) announced on 7 February by the leadership teams of the chancellor’s Christian Democrat/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats (SPD), the SPD must first ask its 463,723 members whether they agree. The vote will take place between 20 February and 2 March. No approval, no GroKo.

Although many commentators think that the SPD membership is likely to approve the GroKo agreement, that’s by no means guaranteed. The SPD is in a serious mess and it’s getting worse.

The party’s result in the 2017 election (20.5%) was its worst since 1949. Its slide has continued: its polling now sits somewhere around 18–19% (only 4–5 points ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)), a disaster for a party that produced chancellors such as Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt.

Understandably, this has led to some major soul-searching within the SPD; many members strongly oppose leaping back into bed with the CDU/CSU. The party’s youth wing has already begun a campaign promoting a ‘no’ result in the internal poll, for example. But the GroKo deal and Schulz have also been sharply criticised by many others in the SPD’s ranks.

And humiliation is being heaped on humiliation for Schulz. Under extreme pressure from within the SPD, in the last few weeks Schulz has been forced to stand down as SPD party and parliamentary party chair (the labour minister in the previous GroKo, Andrea Nahles, will take on both); declare publicly that he won’t be deputy chancellor in any GroKo; and announce that he won’t seek a ministry at all (he was apparently slotted in to be foreign minister, replacing Sigmar Gabriel, who is the caretaker foreign minister).

So Schulz’s decision to parachute into German politics last year from the presidency of the European Parliament and be the SPD’s candidate for chancellor was clearly not a strategically sensible one for him or for the SPD.

But it’s not only the SPD that has serious problems. CDU/CSU casualties also litter the ground. The most injured of these might well be Merkel herself, although she remains well ahead of any rivals in German polls as preferred chancellor. Apart from the inordinate delay in finding a coalition partner, there are many within the CDU and CSU who are strongly critical of the proposed coalition agreement with the SPD. They think that Merkel and her team have conceded far too much to a party that appears to be in near-terminal decline.

Most particularly, she’s facing criticism for allowing the SPD to claim more key ministries than its 2017 election result (a full 10 percentage points behind the CDU/CSU) and current poor standing deserve. Merkel has reportedly agreed to have the SPD’s Olaf Scholz occupy the powerful German finance ministry. Scholz is currently mayor of Hamburg and is also considered a future SPD leader. And Merkel has allowed the CSU to take the interior ministry from the CDU as well.

All of this has even led some in the CDU to call publicly for a change of personnel at the top (not only Merkel, but also new faces in the ministry), and there’s a lot of speculation that Merkel might not see out her forthcoming term as chancellor. That could well be true. Many people thought it would probably be her last term anyway, given that she has already been chancellor for almost 13 years. Clearly, the coalition-forming nightmare has just underlined that conclusion.

For her part, Merkel has indicated that she intends to see out the full four-year term if the GroKo is formed. But she has been forced to face the ministry issue by promising that the proposed ministry list will be available to CDU (and CSU) members for information ahead of a scheduled party conference to consider the GroKo on 26 February.

The CDU/CSU still has the strongest support among the parties, with polling showing it at about the same level as in last year’s election (32.5%). But there’s no getting around the fact that the past five months have been long and brutal, even taking into account the SPD’s self-destruction, and Merkel has definitely been weakened by the experience in the eyes of voters.

What would happen if the SPD membership voted against the GroKo agreement? There would probably have to be new elections in Germany, something that few of the parties—apart from the AfD—want. And it would mean a further long delay in Germany getting a government.

The result of the SPD’s membership poll will probably be announced on 4 March. A lot hangs on its success.